GETTING around London isn’t the easiest when you’re a wheelchair user – especially if your debilitating condition becomes too much and you’re looking for a quick escape route. But not when you’ve got a support dog, trained to part crowds at the drop of a hat.

Safi is a black Labrador trained by Sheffield-based charity Support Dogs to help her owner, Matilda, with a host of tasks. Matilda, 29, has functional neurological disorder (FND), which leaves her very tired, with a weak left side and in huge amounts of pain. She uses a wheelchair and spends most of her time at home.

“I go out, but not often,” said Matilda. “It can be a bit daunting if I go out and I get a lot of pain. I live in London – people will walk into you or walk across you, but Safi positions herself in a way that people can’t. If it’s crowded and we need to go home, Safi can woof on command and suddenly people will get out of the way.”

Support Dogs – a national charity which trains and provides disability and autism assistance dogs, as well as seizure alert dogs - has also trained Safi in other tasks, including opening doors, picking items up and loading the washing machine. Matilda  initially had glandular fever, which developed into ME (Myalgic encephalomyelitis or chronic fatigue syndrome) and then Fibromyalgia before her final diagnosis.

“At the time, I was pretty mobile and I couldn’t understand why people were telling me to take it slowly,” she said. But over-exertion has led her condition to worsen. Before she was diagnosed, Matilda was about to start a university degree in Spanish and Portuguese, with long-term dreams of teaching English abroad. But that required going overseas for a year, which was impossible due to her condition and she had to switch her plans and study comparative literature instead. Nevertheless, determined Matilda achieved a first class degree in the subject.

In 2018, a year after becoming a wheelchair user, her doctor declared Matilda unfit for work. That same year, she became the proud owner of Safi, who is the pup of a rescue dog.

As Safi walked nicely beside her wheelchair, she was quick to learn and Matilda found it difficult to bend, Matida looked online to see if there was anything that could train Safi to help her with specific tasks. Cue Support Dogs – and Matilda set about her application. Just before the pandemic, Matilda and Safi travelled to the charity’s headquarters, where Matilda completed a questionnaire and Safi had an assessment. Lockdown meant a delay in the next step, but eventually the pair were accepted onto Support Dogs’ disability programme.

Describing her initial fears, including about having to leave Safi in the care of Support Dogs staff for training, Matilda said:

“People may be scared that their pet dog’s not going to be a dog any more and that they are going to turn your dog into a robot assistance dog. But it just couldn’t be further from the truth – she’s still the exact same dog; she loves all the same things, still sleeps upside down on her beanbag, if you do a dance she will get excited doing zoomies. It’s just that when she wears her Support Dogs jacket, she’s a bit more sensible.”

And she said that Safi is “treated like a Queen” by the charity’s staff, adding: “Whenever she sees the instructor, Rebecca, she’s more excited to see Rebecca than she is me!”"

Praising the work of the charity, Matilda added: “I think it’s just brilliant. I feel like if I won the lottery, it would be great to get Support Dogs the facilities they need, for instance to help them get a bigger premises and enable them to have more space. It’s really important, especially as the only route to get an assistance dog in this country is to go through a registered charity. It makes such a difference.”